Advocating a limitless mindset in employees
In conversation with Priya Sunil, Louise Pender talks about interventions for supporting employees through tough times; how no market is left behind in every initiative, and why Zalorians are proud advocates of the company's culture.
Vital Stats: Louise Pender is the General Counsel and Chief People Officer at ZALORA. In her roles, she concurrently heads the company’s Legal and Sustainability teams, while overseeing all HR functions across ZALORA’s seven markets. Together with her 63-strong People team, she looks after nearly 2,000 employees. In her free time, she enjoys running, swimming, and cycling.
What do you call someone who wears the hat of general counsel, and another hat for chief people officer? You get a leader who is not only a true-blue advocate of the company, but equally an advocate for the people – and for Louise Pender, General Counsel and Chief People Officer (CPO) at ZALORA (pictured above), this is a perfect blend of both her experience and her personality.
Joining e-retailer ZALORA as General Counsel six years ago, she moved to take on the additional portfolio of CPO in 2020. It’s not every day someone with a law background takes on the role of a ‘people’ leader, so Priya Sunil took the opportunity to ask her how this all came together one sunny afternoon.
Laughing, she replies: “I get asked this question fairly often, and it’s not so surprising because it’s unusual. But people who know me and who have worked with me wouldn’t find it much of a surprise! “I am naturally a ‘people’ person, I’ve never been the kind of general counsel who sticks within her lane. Part of the responsibilities of a general counsel is also to take ownership of culture in a company and helping to set that tone from the top. And I think that translates very well into the ‘people’ role.”
The opportunities for CHROs in today’s world are limitless, which ties in with one of ZALORA’s relaunched values from this past year: “Limitless mindset.” To Pender, this value reflects strongly in ZALORA’s approach in truly putting people first – which shows in how they care for each other, whether people are caught in floods or their family has been hit by COVID, the heart of the company comes out.
In this interview, let’s uncover Pender and her team’s interventions in supporting employees through tough times; how no market is left behind in every company initiative; and why Zalorians are proud advocates of the company’s culture.
Q As an online platform, ZALORA would no doubt have seen a surge in customer demand in the past two years, with people around the region heading out less and relying more on online orders. Yet on the people front, it was also a time where companies have had to pivot to remote/hybrid working, or the new way of work. How did you and your leadership team work to ensure your workforce could adapt to the workplace and customer changes?
In terms of what my role is bringing to the leadership team, first of all, in making sure ZALORA is able to meet its strategy and look after its customers, we equally have to be able to focus on our people. My and my team’s focus was on attracting the best talent for ZALORA – talent that would fit well within our culture, and have a home both in terms of the skills and cultural fit.
Secondly, my job is about creating an environment in which they can perform. That, in terms of the people and culture mission, creating a happy and vibrant workplace, and delivering an outstanding end-to-end employee experience.
If people are happy, then they’re going to perform. And that’s why we make sure to look after their development and welfare, and provide them with the flexibility they need in today’s uncertain context. So that’s what my team is bringing to the table in helping our employees to meet or create those ‘wow’ moments for our customers.
Q Tell us about how you introduced the ‘Future of Work’ strategy which played a part to help employees adapt.
We developed our ‘Future of Work’ strategy quite quickly. We were able to pivot to working from home within a matter of days after the pandemic hit. One of the lessons we learned is the more flexibility, certainty, and transparency we could provide to our employees, the more we could operate effectively at home.
This was also evident in our engagement surveys – we found that our approach was increasing our engagement scores and the general satisfaction of employees with their work.
At the end of 2020, we transitioned permanently to a hybrid work environment. We haven’t been able to open up fully in any of our locations yet, but where we have been able to do that periodically, we’ve said to our employees, ‘it’s your choice, in collaboration with your manager and what’s going to work best for you. Use the office as your base to collaborate, connect, have meetings, have fun, it’s really up to you. We trust you to be able to do your job.’ And I believe this has had a very positive impact on our culture and productivity.
As we continue to open up, we are looking at how we can repurpose our workspaces into more collaborative spaces, rather than the traditional desk-and-chair office environment.
Q How are you adapting this across all your markets, given that each market has its own regulations and workforce needs?
We’ve recognised the cultural needs and nuances are very different across the seven markets our people are located in. So it comes down to freedom, flexibility, and radical transparency. While we’ve provided the framework, we have also provided the flexibility around that, within certain constructs.
So, it’s up to how our local leadership teams want to formalise their own local ‘Future of Work’ strategy. That includes (guidance around) how we keep people safe, making sure that we are supporting our company culture, connectivity, that we’re not leaving anyone behind, and ensuring a sense of belonging.
Q In the same vein, ZALORA introduced a series of wellness initiatives for employees in the past year. Please talk us through the process.
When we first transitioned to work from home, what I, our CEO, and the management team were generally very concerned about was whether we were going to lose this [culture] if we did so.
From talking to our people, feedback from managers, and from employee surveys, we understood that not everyone was coping with working from home, and the isolation it brought along. We were thus concerned about the second pandemic – mental health issues.
The other thing that we were really concerned about is, we are not mental health experts, so we did not want to put in place something that was not going to help our employees. Therefore, we started with what we always do – asking them. We did a number of surveys, using a listening approach to know what our employees wanted and found helpful.
And we ended up putting in place a number of things. For example, we have partnered with a mental health platform that gives all of our employees free access to counselling services – and they can do that without anyone in ZALORA being aware of it. It’s fully confidential, and free of charge. This support was what our employees and leaders were asking for most.
What surprised me most was the success of our Zoom-free time every Wednesday. If employees have accepted the calendar invite for this time (from morning till after lunch), no one is allowed to schedule a meeting with them during that period. Knowing how active and connected Zalorians are, I’m surprised to see how much uptake this has got, and how much people appreciate that time.
I try and use it myself when I can as well, but I’m not always so disciplined!
Q That’s very interesting! Do you see all these extending beyond the next one to two years, or evolving in any way?
I see us looking further into this, and I don’t see it going away. What we need to provide for our people in organisations has changed for good. We’re catching up with something that our employees already wanted.
The ultimate word these days is ‘flexibility’ in the wider sense – how we can connect the needs of our people to be able to deliver on our business plan is where the art and science mix.
Q What else can your employees look forward to in the coming one to two years as part of your top priorities?
The first one is our diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DIB) strategy and framework. We’ve got 33 different nationalities across our organisation even though we are only present in seven countries. And we speak a number of different languages. But this (framework) is more about making sure that we’re truly fostering diversity in our workplace, not only in gender, because this is really what makes ZALORA strong.
In terms of diversity of thought, it involves integrating the science mindset with the creative mindset to develop something special, given the types of backgrounds our people come from. It is also about making sure that we are creating an environment that is truly inclusive, where everyone has a say and is comfortable to do so, and that they feel they belong at ZALORA.
Creating an environment like this is a draw – we really want people to be able to bring their full selves to work. Promoting our DIB framework will be a big thing for us to focus on.
Q One key group of stakeholders through all of this is the line managers. How are you looking to train or develop your line managers to own these strategies?
It starts with awareness. Our markets are very different, so one of the things that we found very early on, for instance, when we first started rolling out our ‘Celebrating Diversity’ policy, was that people have different ideas of what diversity is. We know it’s a complex topic that’s so much more than gender. Even the idea of inclusion can be quite abstract for some people.
Therefore, we are rolling out a number of programmes, centred around the education of our leaders. At the core of that is the ability to recognise our biases.
One of the key programmes we are rolling out in Q1 and Q2 for our leaders is our ‘unconscious bias’ programme. We’ve established a new pillar [around this], and our new director (of Culture and Organisational Effectiveness) reporting in to me, is one of the key people helping to develop our DIB framework.
She is rolling out a great exercise (that she has tested on me!) – where she walks people through a real-life situation, then asks them some very daunting questions about what that person looked like, what nationality they were, what sex they were, and so on. I can’t wait to get it fully rolled out across our leadership because once people are more aware of their unconscious biases, it can have a massive impact on the way we behave towards others.
Q Being so passionate about your job, what are some personal highlights you’d like to share?
When I came on board six years ago, we did not really have a legal team or a sustainability team. And now, here we are, rethinking how to structure the People team to be the most effective. So, a highlight for me would be to watch and build those teams, and to see the people develop, move on, and progress. This gives me the most satisfaction.
Q If you could describe the culture at ZALORA in one sentence, what would that be?
That’s hard! I will give you a term that ties this up instead. We re-launched our values this past year, and one that really stands out to me is: ‘limitless mindset’. That’s how we approach everything.
But what is really different about ZALORA is, firstly, that we truly put people first — and it comes across in the way that people interact together, in how we show that we care for each other. I think it’s really all that, together with our limitless mindset, that makes us different from a lot of other companies.
Ultimately, it comes down to how we look out for each other when there are people in need, whether they’re caught up in floods or their family has been hit by COVID, it’s a number of different things and the heart of the company comes out. That’s what I love about ZALORA.
Q If you were to choose, what are some key skills you believe HR or People leaders would need to possess, in order to be relevant for the future?
The first, is the ability to listen and really have a good ear for what’s going on in the organisation. You have to be connected to people — a lot of people — and really have a good understanding of the mood through the organisation.
Equally important would be empathy and compassion. It’s not just good enough to listen, you have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand what they are feeling, and you have to be compassionate.
You also have to be okay with change, and be adaptable, because it’s no point listening, having empathy and feeling sorry for people, or having a heart for people. You have to be willing to change something in order to make things better.
Q It’s time for a fun question! I understand you’re a fitness enthusiast, so if you could run, swim, or cycle with any leader in the world, who would it be?
This is the hardest question so far! I could think of a number of people, but because I’m a proud Kiwi, I will pick Jacinda Ardern. She came into the political scene long after I’d stopped living in New Zealand, but she fascinates me, and partly it’s because she has a really difficult job, and she is the epitome of a working mum. She wears her heart on her sleeve, and I think that is a real strength that resonates with people.
Q Would you like to give a shout-out to all your employees/stakeholders who have played a pivotal role in bringing the company forward?
I couldn’t pull out one person on my team, because as all leaders would know, we are only as successful as our team makes us. Everyone on my team plays a very important role, and there’s no way I could go through a day without them.
If there were three people that I’m extremely grateful for – firstly, it’s Gunjan Soni. I don’t think there are many CEOs who would give their general counsels the opportunity to step out and try something outside the box as she has.
That takes a great vote of confidence. Next is Yana Valletta, who brought me into the company six years ago. She’s always been a mentor for me in terms of giving me confidence to try new things, helping me to believe in myself, and pushing me to do more than I think I can do. I count her as a great friend, and she’s still my boss as I report to her in her role as Group General Counsel for Global Fashion Group (GFG).
The person I’m so thankful for, day to day, is Nic Strauss, who is the Chief People Officer of GFG. I go to her all the time for wisdom, advice, and know-how. I don’t know how she deals with me, but I’m leaning on her a lot for sure.
An excerpt of this article first appeared as the cover story in the Q1 edition of Human Resources Online's Southeast Asia e-magazine. View a copy of the e-magazine here, where you'll find power-packed features and interviews with leaders from Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, the US, and more!
Photos / Provided